Sunday, 30 July 2017

Cramming it into Copenhagen

What did I say in my last post? That three days was the optimum time to visit a city? Obviously, I hadn't been to Copenhagen yet. After two days, I'm already wondering how we can possibly fit everything we want to do in and we're here for a little more than three days. Still, we've managed quite a bit already.

How? No 1: get an early flight. This has the disadvantage that you have to get up correspondingly early, but means you have a full day at your destination and if you're really exhausted from the early start (like I was), you'll suddenly find you can even sleep on a plane.

No 2: Pick up a Copenhagen Card before you leave the airport. You can pre-order online, so it's waiting for you, which means you don't have to pay anything additional to ride the 12-minute train journey to the center of the city because that's included. You might think, 'What? 659 DKK (€88) for three days? That's crazy money', but believe me, you'll make enough use of it. Besides the train, it makes all bus – including waterbuses – the metro, 79 museums and attractions (including Tivoli Gardens) free to enter and you get discounts on plenty of other things. It turns that, 'Should we or shouldn't we?' when you're passing somewhere into a 'Let's go in!' You can, of course, buy it for 24 hours and 48 hours too.

Tip No 3: Eat dinner at Mielcke & Hurtigkarl. Yes, it's expensive (from 800 DKK [about €110]) for the daily Experience menu, plus drinks, but again, you won't regret it. It's one of those meals that aren't just about the food – though that's pretty amazing, with all sorts of interesting flavour pairings (birch ice cream and celeriac chips, just for instance), plus it's in the most beautiful setting, in a city park that's really more of a garden. The building is the old Royal Horticultural Society's orangery and there are interesting arty touches, like tiny little lights strung up on the ceiling that become brighter as night falls outside.

What to do with the rest of your time? Take the canal boat cruise (included in your Copenhagen Card) for an overview of the city and, also, a way of catching some sun. If you're into food (and who isn't?) get yourselves to Papirøen (Paper Island), which is a temporary thing – the food stalls only have leases until the end of 2017. After that...? – for a hall full of just about any nationality's signature dishes: Thai, Mexican, Turkish, Moroccan, plus pulled pork, bbq-ed chicken, wraps. And, also, the Meat Packing District, where there are lots of year-round restaurants and a food-truck-market thing every Saturday and Sunday.

You also need to at least walk through Tivoli Gardens (remember that Copenhagen Card) and it's easy to do because it's bang central. I know, it's 'only an old theme park', as someone described it before we left, but it has a certain charm for being old and if you're a ride person (I'm not, but don't let that stop you) there are plenty (you pay for these separately to the entrance fee, which was free with your Copenhagen Card. Have I mentioned the Copenhagen Card...?)

Another place to take a look at is Christiania. We were going to take a walking tour of this self-proclaimed 'Freetown', but didn't make the meet-up time, so we just wandered in, which the public is welcome to do, so long as you follow the rules (no photographs without permission, no running – it causes panic – and a reminder that buying or selling hash is illegal). Christiania is a town within a town, an area of mostly old army barracks that was squatted by hippy types back in 1971, that made up its own rules - or non-rules, depending on how you look at it. There were a lot of riots and clashes with the Danish police for 40 whole years, mostly over things like marijuana and hash being 'legal' within Christiania. Finally, in 2011, a peace agreement, if you like, was drawn up and now there's a Foundation which runs Christiania and things have settled down.

It's interesting - for instance, no one owns their home here, they are given them for free to live in - and there is a lot of street art and you'll see hash stalls on Pusher Street, but...? It has an edgy feel. When we were there, on a sunny afternoon, there were very few women. I don't know why this was, but there were definitely plenty of men. It's also fairly comprehensively dirty – I guess the local services don't come in to clean – and it has the look of what I imagine a city would look like if everyone just left and nature started to take over again. Shaggy bushes and trees, pavement slabs coming up, very large dogs roaming around. We went in a couple of the shops, just to have a look. One, which sold hardware and postcards and was staffed by an older woman, was fine, but the other two – a food store and an art gallery – smelled like a teenage boy's bedroom.

I like the idea of people being free to do as they like, without a controlling governmental hand – it appeals to the hippy in me – but I didn't feel entirely relaxed there.

Here's another thing to do with your time: leave. Yes, really. So, Tip No 4 is: go to Malmo, over the bridge in Sweden. It's ridiculously easy to do. Buy your bus ticket in Central Station, walk out the main entrance, turn left and wait at the 999 bus stop. Do not be alarmed at the large crowds of people who wait here: lots of buses stop here, not just the 999.

While we were waiting, I had an interesting experience. A perfectly reasonable-looking young chap came over and asked if he could borrow my phone so he could make a call to Sweden. I said yes and handed it over, he made his call - which lasted maybe a couple of minutes - and then he handed it back. We then had a chat, during which he said he had been living through a tough time, mostly in the train station and that's when I realised once again that, when you're outside your culture, you don't necessarily pick up the clues about people. I hadn't guessed that he was homeless. His comment at some point about living as a Buddhist had answered my unspoken question about why he didn't have his own phone. Anyway, the 999 came and we said good-bye and that was that. Nothing unpleasant happened, but it was just... odd.

Malmo is lovely and the trip over really enjoyable. Lots of views of the amazing Oresund Bridge (a winner even if you've never watched The Bridge. However, if you haven't seen this Nordic noir TV series, you've got a treat ahead of you) and it only takes about half an hour. Then, hey presto, you're in another country where fika rules.

Fika is something sweet, like a pastry, and – traditionally – coffee, though no one thought it odd when I asked for tea instead.

So, of course, you must stop for fika somewhere and you must take the little canal cruise here as well, and then you'll want to wander down the main shopping street and probably buy something. I know Denmark is meant to be the home of good design, but I loved the Swedish clothes and homewares even more.

By now it will be time to catch the last bus back, which leaves at 4-something in the afternoon.

You'll do plenty of walking in Copenhagen, as one does in any city, but with your (wait for it!) Copenhagen Card, you can always jump on a passing bus – or, the one thing we didn't find time to do – hire a bicycle, which seems to be how at least half the city's population gets around.

Where to stay? That's Tip No 5: the Andersen Hotel. It's about a five-minute walk from Central Station, where the train to and from the airport comes to. It's reasonably priced, breakfast is included, and it's very convenient to most things. We were told it's in the red-light district, but a few sex shops and a few sex workers weren't threatening in any way and it was all very relaxed, so don't let that put you off. It also has nice touches, like 'Wine Hour', where you can sit in the lounge and drink wine for free between 5-6pm; the reception desk operates on karma - that is, they're nice to you, you're then happy, which makes them happy... No wonder the Danes are the happiest people in Europe! Such a nice ethos.

Our final sightseeing visit was the Carlsberg brewery. Once again, free entry with that card, and after you've had a good look around, you get a free drink (either one of their beers or a soft drink), plus a free gift. What would this be, we wondered? Ah, a little lapel pin...

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Three days in Porto

What’s the ideal amount of time to visit a city? To hit the highlights, see enough that you you’ve got a good feel for it, but not so long that you’re scrabbling around for things to do? I’m not talking here about that ‘You can never know a place too well’ thing, but more that when you come away, you feel you could tell someone else what not to miss and have had experiences you wouldn’t have had anywhere else.

I think it’s somewhere around three days. Of course, you can ‘do’ a place in a weekend too, but another day on top of that allows a little bit of wiggle room.

And so to Porto… Like Lisbon and San Fransisco, it’s all hills. You’re either going up or you’re going down. While going down might sound easier, in the back of your mind, you know it only means that soon you’ll be going up again. And, like much of life, the devil is in the detail here. So, while the broad sweeps are glorious, the azulo tiles round doorways or covering whole buildings are incredible, as are the bas reliefs on 1930s theatres or the small curiosities on a table top.

Casa de Chá da Boa Nova terrace
View from the terrace
We stayed in the Teatro Hotel, so named because it’s in the small theatre district. While it does have a great location, being just off the main Avenida dos Aliados and walking distance to the Ribeiro district by the river, cafés, restaurants and plenty of beautiful cathedrals, it was the lowest-lit place I’ve ever stayed. I think it was a design feature. Not to judge – just putting it out there.

An amusing amuse bouche
If you have time and money, book dinner at Casa de Chá da Boa Nova. It’s out along the coast, so a 20-minute taxi ride from downtown Porto, but in the most incredible position right on the rocks edging the ferocious Atlantic. A sundowner (try one of the house cocktails) served with amuse bouche on the west-facing terrace is a must-do. Dinner is a choice of one of the eight-course menus (€125) – I had the Atlantic, which is seafood from start to finish, served with molecular detail so that every plate is a work of art and makes use of just about every sea creature, from oysters to tuna to mackerel to squid to sea urchin to… I’ve forgotten them all, but by the pre-dessert it felt as if we tasted just about everything that lives under water. We went with the wine pairing (€85), which is worth it if only for the theatre of the sommelier and his amazing moustaches, explaining each bottle to us. Though it all tasted delicious and everything comes from Portugal. Someone tell me why it's so hard to find wine from this region outside of the country, please? 

Jacaranda (my fav trees)
Everywhere is uphill
Even if high, fine dining isn’t your thing, just sitting in the Pritzker Prize-winning Álvaro Siza Vieira designed building is an experience. For those who don't know, the Pritzker Prize is the world's top award for architecture. Built in the middle of the last century, it’s a study in wood panelling, sweeping concrete and vast picture windows that will put you in mind of Eames chairs and Frank Lloyd Wright.

What else must you do? Walk down to the Ribeiro area by the river and stop in at the train station on the way to admire the blue and white tiles, which will have you staring at the ceiling, marvelling that people once put the effort into making the everyday beautiful. 
Train station
The Ribeiro is both slum and chi-chi boutique district. Laundry is strung between windows that have million-dollar views over the Douro. Tavernas line the harbour, music plays – often live – sightseeing boats vie for your passage to give you the one-hour cruise of the six city bridges, seagulls caw and a market selling tourist tat – think tableclothes, tile trivets, t-shirts and cork fashioned into handbags, purses, wallets and bracelets – lines the waterfront. Of course you’ll come here and then you’ll probably take the funicular up to the start of the train bridge at the northern end, which has an exciting take on safety: there’s nothing between the steady stream of pedestrians and the occasional speeding metro except fear, but somehow it works. 

We also saw a sun dog while we were there: a circle round the sun caused by ice particles reflecting the light in very high clouds. Quite astonishing.

Sun dog
Once on the other side, you'll want to visit one of the port cellars that line the riverfront here. They'll give you a tour of their behind-the-scenes museum, a tasting and then lead you to their shop. You can also simply sit in one of their bars in the welcome cool and enjoy a glass of the local bevvy. If you just need a toilet, head to Sandeman's. It's clean and you can nip in without having to traverse the bar – it's on the left-hand side when you go in.

View from the Yeatman
While you're on this side of the Douro, do visit the Michelin-starred Yeatman Hotel for a drink with the best view in Porto. It's a climb up (or call an Uber if you really can't face it), but worth it to sit in comfortable luxury and be served by gracious waitresses and a doorman who treats you like you own the place. Oh, and the view. 

It may be a bit of a cliche, but the hop-on-hop-off busses get my vote. We went with the Yellow Bus Tour, which included a port tasting and an hour boat tour of the bridges, which was fun. It gives you an overview of the city, you can use it as transportation to all the sights and it offers a welcome respite if you just want to sit for a bit. We took one out to the city's nearest beach at Matosinhos, a one-time fish-canning factory area. While it's not the most beautiful architecturally, the beach is wide, sandy and there's a great promenade that runs alongside for walking and people-watching.

Final must-do thing: a riverboat trip on the Douro. For a one-day trip, this involves a two-hour train ride, either before or after your boat trip up or down the Douro. That's because they all start or finish in Regua, just over 100km upriver from Porto. We went for the train ride first, which feels like the right way round, and travelled with Rota do Douro, They start early in the morning, but it's worth getting up for. The train ride is scenic (and air-conditioned), the boat back was utterly charming. A nice, family-style lunch is served, the bar is open all the way, you go through two dramatic locks and there's both inside (again with air con) and outside seating, all for €60. A real treat. And the perfect way to round off a short break to this river-based city.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Hampton Manor, near Solihull, England

What's better than a fairytale-like manor house on a beautiful spring day in England? Actually getting to stay the weekend in it, during which you'll discover the beds are soft as clouds, that every modern convenience has been discreetly installed and that they all operate at 21st-century levels (I'm talking fast wi-fi, endless hot water, double glazing, flatscreen TVs, etc) without so much as detracting a millimetre from the charm and ambience of the house.

What's more, the restaurant holds an entirely unsurprising Michelin star (this is the sort of place where starters include cauliflower with local Berkswell cheese and truffle shavings with a cauliflower consommé poured over; monkfish served with cubes of kohlrabi, coriander and samphire, followed by a pre-dessert, a dessert and then petits fours. And no, you won't have room for them all...) and where the staff have been awarded the very first Michelin star based on service alone. Again, not really a shock, since everyone who works here seems to have been hired for their easy, friendly manner and detailed knowledge of the food and history of the estate.

In short, Hampton Manor is the sort of place where you quickly start behaving as if you're the favourite grandchild of the family who own the place. That is to say, you'll be relaxed, very comfortable and maybe just a tiny bit smug. Why, yes, of course you're going in the library to drink a glass of the English fizz Nyetimber that's giving the French something to fret about. Now? Why, you're going for a wander around the grounds, because you want to gaze at the ponies in the field, look for the walled garden and see how many of the flowering shrubs you can name.

You might also cheekily think up faux personalities you could take on, if you were to crash the wedding that's taking place here in the afternoon, but know you'll end up visiting local town Knowle to check out the local producers instead and then probably head into Birmingham to find out why everyone says you should experience city-centre Brindleyplace, from where you'll probably take one of the canal cruises and learn the history of the area from the commentary.

All before returning to this magical corner of some green and pleasant land.

Hampton Manor

Friday, 17 March 2017

Muscat, Oman

"You see that?" our guide said, indicating a parking lot. "That's the women's driving school. You know why they have to practise there? Because when women see another car, they go, 'Whooo!'" At which he did jazz hands above his head.

Um, no. Even when I was an utter beginner driver – back when I used to 'borrow' one of my dad's cars to drive down and then reverse up the 1/4-mile driveway with, or confidently told drunk friends that they'd had too much to drink so they better let me drive, neglecting to mention I didn't actually have a license yet – did I ever throw my hands up in the air and shout, "Whoo!" in fright if I saw another car.

But this is the Middle East, where 'jokes' in which women are depicted as the slightly dumber, silly sex are apparently still acceptable. Consider this: the universal right for all women to vote didn't arrive in Oman until 2003. Shocking? Switzerland didn't give women the vote until 1971. We're not talking ancient history, are we?

Still, I liked Oman. A lot. It felt safe, it looks amazing, with its intensely forbidding, dry, mountainous coast. It's also oddly broken up, so the main bit is on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula and then it has two exclaves, a word I'd never heard before, further north. These are areas completely surrounded by UAE land, but still part of Oman. The best explanation I was given was that the tribes who lived in these regions felt an affinity to Oman so they chose which country they belonged to. I can't go further into the whole partitioning of the Ottoman Empire without showing my embarrassing level of ignorance on the subject, so I'll stop here.

We visited the capital, Muscat, which has a population of less than 30,000; is where the Sultan has his palace, and is the home of the beautiful Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which is visitor friendly and where you need to dress discreetly and cover your hair. By which I mean, if you're a woman. Men do not have to cover their hair, though they are expected to cover their arms and legs, and dress respectably.

I didn't mind. At any event, it's a moot point: if you're a visitor in another country and go to their place of worship, you abide by the rules or you don't go.

Oman must be the frankincense capital of the world – the whole of Muscat's souq was aromatic with it – which I liked. I picked up a large bag of the stuff, wondering if it would be pricey: 1 rial, which is about £2.

When our guide said we'd be visiting a museum, I admit to a bit of heartsink (#boring). Bait Adam was anything but. Bait, as the owner told us, means 'house of', so this was Adam's House. Adam was the owner's son and inside was a collection of... well, things. There were many framed newspaper cuttings and old photographs, plenty of glass cases with bits of this and that in them, and the whole didn't take long to go round. At the end, you were offered a cup of local coffee, which is something between coffee as you may know it and tea, and could browse the gift shop. Really, not much like any museum I'd ever visited before and I would recommend it for the owner's little introduction alone. To find it, best google as it hasn't a website.

In the end, it was this friendliness of the people that stood out: the server in a dried-fruit store was patience itself as we dithered over the different flavours; a couple of men were concerned about us getting the right bus and helpfully found us a taxi when we realised we'd missed ours. I'd love to come back and get to know it better.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Doha, Qatar, on an Arabian Gulf cruise

“These are your camels?” I asked the man in the brown thoub, who was standing near, smiling at us as we petted one of the beautiful animals.

“Oh, no,” he said, shocked at the suggestion. “They are for parliament.”

There were 26 of them, munching hay in little groups within the corral. None of the camel caretakers seemed to mind when we wandered in and began taking pictures, patting and feeding them tufts of hay. There were maybe six men, one watering the verge-side grass, a couple perched on the fencing, our man in among the camels and a couple more carrying out odd jobs.

It was the same 20 minutes later when we happened upon the stables of eight grey Arabian horses, kept in immaculate conditions, with clean bedding in their vast stalls, a couple of them tacked up in ornately decorated gear, with State of Qatar on their red saddle rugs and cowry shells sewn in wherever possible. No one minded in the least that we went in and petted and stroked their fine heads, took photographs, and oohed and ahhed over their handsomeness.

Animal encounter number three was seeing the birds for sale in the falcon souq. I’d imagined this was going to be lone men with maybe one or two birds on stands around a square, who might demonstrate their bird’s training in little flights. Instead, it was shops with double-height interiors, with birds – anything from three or four to up to 10 – sitting on perches, most with burqas on their heads, covering their eyes, but occasionally a lone one without and, in one shop, none of the birds were wearing them.

“Are they trained?” I asked a shopkeeper.

“Yes, all trained.”

“How much are they?” asked my companion.

“This one,” the shopkeeper indicated the nearest bird, “Is 5,000 rial. That one, 17,000.” So, take from that they start at about £4,000-£5,000 and go up from there. As it was nearly my birthday, I suggested to my companion that an Arabian horse and a falcon would do nicely…

We were four, wandering around Doha, checking out the sights, like the Al Koot Fort in the main square, which you can’t go into and which, being entirely white, is well camouflaged against a background of more modern white buildings, but very cool when the eye picks it out at last; and the Wadif Souq which, like all the best, is a labyrinth of narrow, covered alleyways selling pashminas by the stackload; handmade saddles and other tack and leather goods, bags, holsters, swords, gold jewellery in shops that resemble small Aladdin’s caves, so full of glitter are they; along with traditional clothes, sandals and ladies with their hotplates making flatbread out in front.

At 5pm we made our way to where a small, white coach pulled up and got on. Our ship was sailing at 6pm and everyone had to be back on board by 5.30, when the gangplank would be pulled up, no exceptions.

“Can we wait five minutes?” said a harassed-looking woman. “We left our luggage in a car.”

What this luggage was (if she was on the cruise with us, what was she doing totting luggage around during a day out?) and why it was in a car (a car? Really? Whose? How could you forget something like that?), we never found out, but we spent increasingly anxious minutes waiting.

‘What happens if you miss the boat?’ I asked a companion who’d been on a cruise before.

‘You have to fly to the next destination. At your cost.’

Oh. Hmmm. Fancy making a coach load of people miss the boat? Not something I’d want on my conscience. Fortunately, eventually, we pulled away as the guide told her he’d left a message for the car to go straight to the dock.

Ten minutes later, as we ran for the boat, I could hear my name being mispronounced over a tannoy. Oh my! Bang, bang, bang, up the gangplank and… we were on. Phew.

Who says cruising is for sissies?